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Bill Thayer

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Talk 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Soldiers Unmasked
William Addleman Ganoe

published by
The Military Service Publishing Company
Harrisburg, Pa. 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Talk 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p62  VII

The scramble

At a game of bridge, a player once tried to excuse himself to his partner for trumping his ace, "But you see," he said, "I'm just learning." Said the partner, "That's the devil of it — you're not." Just why our country didn't learn after three wars, two of which we actually lost through the absence of training, and one of which we won because of training, is a mystery to more than good bridge players. Well, we didn't learn, for right after the Mexican War, we reduced our trained force to the size it was shortly after our miserable War of 1812, thirty‑six years before. And we made this astounding reduction, in the face of an increase in our population of twelve millions, and in our territory, of nearly a million square miles. The soldier was almost immediately put up against an impossible task. He was sprinkled about so thinly beyond the Mississippi that often he despaired of his own existence. A paltry seven thousand struggled against hundreds of thousands of Indians for the sake of the settler. Besides, the western land was familiar to the savage and strange to the soldier. The odds against this meager force were  p63  increased when gold was discovered in California, when the forty-niner came along. The soldier had to build forts, roads and trails — and escort the endless caravans of wagon trains over the prairie, if the settler was to arrive safely in our coast states. Meanwhile uprisings of Apaches, Yumas, Navajos, Cheyenne and the deadly Sioux had to be repulsed. Tardy increases of the trained force by Congress came far behind the heels of the unwarranted killings. By 1861 the entire army, trained only in small actions, numbered a little over fifteen thousand men. And eighty-four per cent of this force was scattered so completely and remotely from Washington, that it would have taken months to collect them. We sat through all this, like the man watching for weeks the flood approaching his house, and making no attempt to remove his furniture, or get a boat. We watched the skies grow darker and crooned, "It ain't goin' to rain no more." For thirty years the North had been trying to black the South's industrial eye, and the South had as vigorously defied the threats. Violent abolitionists, cartoonists, pamphleteers and novelists had been using hot words and making insulting gestures at each other. Yet the Yankee, doubling one fist and opening the other, kept saying, "O, no there won't be a war. Brother couldn't fight brother. Even if there is one, it can't last." When South Carolina  p64 seceded four months before the conflict, and six states followed her example, we did not wake up to the protection of our youth. When nearly one‑fourth of the army, with its proportion of government property in Texas, was surrendered to the South, we did nothing to overcome the loss. When we saw the South call out one hundred thousand men for a year's service, we sat like spectators on the bleachers. We let the Confederates seize the arsenals in their states and all the government property they wanted. We let them boldly inaugurate a rival republic within our borders, elect a president and declare their independence. Even then we made no effort to school and train our men so that they might have some chance. General Scott early begged Buchanan and Secretary of War Floyd to raise a small, efficient, trained force to stem possible trouble, but these men of state merely shrugged. Since Scott was too old to mount a horse, he was too old to give advice. After all he was only at the top of his profession, practically and theoretically. Our attitude was not to be ready for possible emergencies, and particularly an emergency that had been slapping us in the face for over thirty years, but to do as wretchedly as we could when the emergency struck us. And we surely lived up to expectations. When the gun at Fort Sumter waked the sleeping  p65 North into action, we were destitute of anything like a proper tool to handle the situation. Even our new President because there were no trained troops in the East to protect him, had to make his way in disguise to a threatened White House; whereas President Davis, a trained, tried and educated soldier and statesman had collected thirty-five thousand troops, who were being trained and equipped. So when President Lincoln, unlettered and unskilled in the art and science of war arrived in office, he found the South had a magnificent start on him. From then on throughout the war he had to work against horrible handicaps, even though we had three times the man‑power and many times the resources of the Confederates. In desperation he called out seventy-five thousand men for three months — seventy-five thousand raw men to do the work of veterans. In response to this call, a Massachusetts regiment was mobbed while passing through Baltimore and a Pennsylvania regiment had to turn back because it had no arms. Meanwhile nearly three hundred southern officers of the small, far‑scattered trained army went over to the South.

Washington and other cities were deluged with a bewildered, undisciplined and poorly led and organized lot of fellows. Under little restraint they wandered aimlessly about, often unfed for weeks,  p66 quartered in muddy, filthy buildings, with ill‑fitting and oftimes insufficient clothing and with little idea of their duties, conduct or responsibilities. The trained men were so few they couldn't be found, and the government, unlike the able management in the South, made no effort to find them or use their services to the best advantage. Why, when U. S. Grant wrote to Washington offering himself for duty, he wasn't even replied to. Naturally you can't blame the rank and file, if there was an unwarranted lot of brawls and disturbances. Idleness and lack of discipline just means that. Public buildings were defaced. Even the Capitol itself suffered damage and abuse from a regiment quartered in its halls and on the very floors of the Senate and House. The farmer colonel and the apothecary major stalked the streets in showy uniforms, drew their pay, and didn't go near their commands for weeks. Not all of them. There were some very worthy ones, who strove under hindrances of little opportunity, to bring order out of their units. But they were the accidents in our country's arrangements — or lack of them. In these first few months of grand hubbub, misfit and waste, the country had spent more money than would have supported an army of prevention during the preceding ten years. And what needless hardship and suffering it had brought to more than seventy-five thousand people.

 p67  But something had to be done. These three-month men would be going home soon and we'd have to begin all over. The people of the North, having had such a long sleep, demanded action. What matter if we did throw our poor men into a raging torrent before we taught them how to swim. On to Richmond! Those who had said there couldn't be any war, were the loudest in screaming for a fight. On to Richmond! So McDowell became the scape-goat. He had to go. They gave him only thirty thousand men, but that was ten times more than any active officer in the regular army had ever had a chance to handle. They also gave him eight days in which to transform this excursion into an army. Eight days. It was a compliment to his magical powers. But the administration and the country were really serious about it. So he took them out to do battle. Fatigue, waste, meandering, sore feet, green apples, overdrinking and all those hundreds of vices, which the recruit learns to get over, appeared on the march — a march that allowed him to go the great distance of fifteen miles in two days. What else could have happened at Bull Run but what did happen? Of course they'd run. It wasn't their fault, nor had it a thing to do with their bravery. It always will happen when untrained men meet a sudden reversal. Training and discipline are the equivalent of confidence,  p68  and these men hadn't been allowed by their people to have any confidence. Some of them never stopped fleeing till they got to New York. Had it not been that there were a few trained regulars to stop the onrush of the Confederates, more men would have been uselessly slaughtered. This spectacle gave us less than nothing. So we proceeded to call out one million men with more pandemonium, more ill‑supplied concentrations, more sufferings and more expense.

Two weeks ago a listener to these talks, a total stranger to me, sent me an extract from a diary of a gentleman now living, a survivor of this war, one of those noblemen who at this period of the story volunteered to be met with unnecessary cruelty by his country. Here is some of the extract:

"In due time we arrived in Washington on a drizzly, sloppy evening and were marched to and housed in some large building already occupied by larger numbers than should have been there. We had no food, the place was dimly lighted with smoking torches. The floor was so muddy and foul that we could not lie down and no place for so doing being provided. We stood and shivered and said things and wondered if all heroes lived in such style as this."

The diary goes on to show how this detachment  p69  wandered about unassigned to any organization, for days without food, and living in indescribable filth. That is a sample of what these hordes of fine men suddenly called out, suffered. The author of this diary is now ninety‑one, one of the few left to tell the tale. Let me extend to him the admiration and gratitude of our army for his needless and heroic endurance and fortitude.

To go on with the story, during this haphazard condition the South was allowed to develop itself by its comparatively efficient methods, undisturbed by us. McClellan now had the task of building up the great part of these heterogeneous masses into something of an organization. The war had stopped to let us train. But had it? The terrific expense and useless deaths went on. In this first year thousands died of disease under new conditions of exposure and hardships. Meanwhile McClellan had to have time for his gigantic task. The people of the North began to be irritated. Why didn't he do something? Why didn't he go on to Richmond? He had plenty of men. The Yankee brain felt that numbers were a solution for a thing. It little realized that the officers had to be taught the technique of the march, the camp, the battlefield, security, supply, guard, unit management, drill and staff work. The men had to be taught all sorts of movements, the use of their  p70 weapons, sentry duty and above all discipline. All this would have to be done now at this late date, if the North were going to have any success at all. So for nearly a year against the ignorant clamor of a nation, McClellan worked in schooling, and preparing a huge army that would not have been necessary, had Scott's advice been heeded. And he turned out a well-knit machine ready for action — but just a year too late to save the great carnage. When finally a year after the war opened, the Peninsular Campaign was begun, the administration of novices in Washington held out troops from McClellan, heckled and hampered him and finally stopped him when he was beginning to get somewhere. Meanwhile the South was making consummate use of Robert E. Lee's brains and leadership. Then came the empty victory of Antietam, and the defeats of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. It wasn't until the middle of the third year of the war that we won our first decisive battle at Gettysburg. But why shouldn't we at that late date? It was no glory to us. We had the man‑power and money. It's nothing to be particularly happy about as far as efficiency is concerned. It's far better for us to grieve over the losses, the extravagant, ignorant, idle, silly, moronic losses — losses that could scarcely be attributed to men in their senses. I cannot make invectives too strong  p71 against my fellow Yankee, who murderously treated his fellow man by his inhuman dullness before the war. For in this conflict we fought the bloodiest war, man for man, in all our history, when by wisdom and foresight of ordinary business, we could have saved ninety to ninety-eight per cent of the deaths. By our late start, our failure to apply preventives in time, our unreasoning obtuseness in not listening to the experts, we had to call out nearly three million men. Of these we lost by battle over one hundred ten thousand men. But listen to this — by death from disease we threw away nearly a quarter of a million, and the main part of the awful sickness was in the first part of the war and among men utterly unfit for campaign. Among the trained men sickness was so rare that it wasn't often reported. Besides this mortality, of the many fine souls and bodies of volunteers who with high motives came into the ranks, fought and escaped death, there were thousands who went back home stricken by the effects of the bullet, dysentery and fever for the rest of their lives.

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